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Infrared Sauna vs. Traditional Sauna: What Is the Difference?

There are various technologies at play in the sauna industry that are completely different in the way they work. In this article, we will take a look at these differences and compare the pros and cons of each of these sauna types.

There are two main sauna technologies currently in the market – traditional saunas and infrared saunas. Both affect bathers similarly by inducing sweat through heat. The main difference is in the way they heat up the sauna bather’s body.

Traditional saunas

Saunas have been present in various forms for centuries. They originated in Finland where they have been an important part of everyday life, traditions and ceremonies. The original sauna was just a small underground room with a fireplace that heated the stones around. These hot stones then kept the air in the room warm for a long period of time.

Although the technology changed over the centuries (fireplace was replaced by different kinds of stoves – the modern Finnish saunas use gas or electric stoves), the main principle remained the same. Modern saunas use heat-retaining peridotite stones. These stones heat the air around them, which then transfers the heat to the surface of bathers’ skin.

Peridotite stones used in traditional Finnish saunas

Heat storage saunas

Heat-storage saunas use an initial heat source such as a stove to heat a pile of the peridotite stones. The stove is extinguished when the desired heat is achieved and the stones take on the job of maintaining the heat in the room.

The stove can use different fuels such as wood, electricity, or gas. Using wood produces some smoke which covers the surfaces of the room with soot. Wood-burning saunas are called smoke saunas.

The smoke from the burning wood can also cause mild eye irritation and odors. Some people, however, prefer these because of the smell of the wood.

It takes a while to get the temperature to the ideal level as the stones might take some time to heat up. It also doesn’t get overly hot inside these types of saunas.

Depending on the room size and airing time, the temperature can get up to 140°F when empty. However, once bathers come in, it can get up to 176-230°F.

Continuous heating saunas

On the other hand, continuous heating saunas don’t require extinguishing the flames. Stones are still involved as they’re placed above the fire to aid in keeping the room hot, but it is the continuous fire that primarily keeps the room hot.

As such, these sauna types require some labor to keep the fire going. The rooms, however, typically have chimneys that effectively eliminates the eye-irritation and soot caused by smoke saunas.

Traditional sauna with a stove filled with stones

More recently, electric and gas stove powered saunas have popped up. These types don’t need much maintenance compared to the wood-burning continuous heating saunas.

Continuous heating saunas, be it wood-burning, electric, or gas powered, heat up faster than their heat storage counterparts. They can also get hotter too depending on how bathers manage the fire.

Infrared saunas

Infrared saunas generate heat through invisible infrared light rather than through heat transfers from the heat source. The light directly interacts with the skin and body tissues so it heats up significantly faster than traditional saunas.

Because infrared light is a light wave, the air is not heated as much as in traditional saunas. This allows for an environment that induces profuse sweating even in a relatively low 100°F – 140°F temperature room.

Exposure to infrared light is deemed safe by scientists. Safe enough that incubators use the same technology for premature babies.

There are two basic types of infrared heaters used in modern infrared saunas – ceramic heaters and carbon heaters. The main advantage of ceramic heaters is that they heat up really fast. Despite of that, the best infrared sauna manufacturers use carbon heaters as they are more durable and safer than their ceramic counterparts.

Carbon heaters used in infrared saunas

Some people are reluctant to call infrared saunas “saunas” as they do not achieve the temperatures of traditional Finnish saunas. According to some sauna associations, a room must have heat retaining stones, steam, and the ability to get extremely hot to be considered sauna.

On the other hand, lower temperatures of infrared saunas can be convenient for people with lower heat tolerance (due to certain health problems for example). All in all, the sweating with all the related benefits is achieved in both types of saunas.

Energy consumption and running costs

Traditional saunas are typically more expensive to operate. This is because the transfer of the energy from the heat source goes through a layer of air before it reaches the skin.

In other words, traditional heating methods are not as efficient as infrared light that easily passes through the air and is absorbed directly by the skin and body tissues. Infrared saunas, therefore, require less energy to heat up and are typically less expensive to operate.

The distribution of heat in traditional and infrared sauna

A great point of comparison between the two sauna types is the electricity consumed. The electric-powered traditional sauna consumes 6Kw while the infrared sauna requires just about 1Kw. This displays how efficient infrared saunas are compared to traditional saunas in terms of running costs.


Infrared and traditional saunas use two fundamentally different concepts. However, both types achieve the body heating effect so popular among wellness experts and fitness enthusiasts. The significant difference is the intensity of the heat.

Through semantics, perhaps, infrared may not even be a real sauna. But the fact is that the underlying effect of traditional and infrared heating is, no doubt, extremely similar. The same internal processes of heightened heart rates are also present no matter what sauna type is used.

At the end of the day, it’s still is a matter of preference. Some people like traditional saunas because they get extremely hot. Others, on the other hand, prefer the relatively low temperatures of infrared saunas and enjoy their lower running costs.

Ben Pavlik - Your Wellness Kingdom | Twitter | Facebook
Hi, my name is Ben, I am a fitness enthusiast and sauna lover. Your Wellness Kingdom is my project dedicated to helping others create their own wellness kingdom at home and bringing useful information and reviews related to spa and wellness.

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